10. Drinking Buddies
Drinking Buddies, from director Joe Swanberg, has charisma and charm for days, but its implications are quite frightening: that you could fall in love with the wrong person and essentially be rendered powerless. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), co-workers at a Chicago Brewery, are platonic friends who slowly realize their relationship is more intimate than their current relationships will allow. The screenplay—or lack thereof, since most of the film was improvised around a loose script—insists the film rely on the charm of its stars. Olivia Wilde, who seemed to have burst on the scene as more of a Hollywood commodity than an actress, is unflappable in such a demanding role. Jake Johnson is so effortless it is enviable. Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick play Kate and Luke’s significant others, respectively, and are just as great; though their roles often call for them to be foils, they are able to humanize characters that could come off as unlikeable in the hands of lesser actors. In a year that saw grand period pieces and technical marvels, Drinking Buddies can seem quaint, but it’s quite smart and always funny. Oh, and did I mention just how goddamn charming it is?
Mia Wasikowska continues to prove she’s capable of just about anything. In Stoker, Korean director Chan-wook Park’s first American film, Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a teenage girl mourning the recent loss of her father when a long-lost uncle injects himself into her life. Wasikowska is astounding as the young lead of the film and Matthew Goode, a purveyor of smarmy charm, is captivating and bizarre as the mysterious Uncle Charlie. Chan-Wook Park and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, compound on the brooding screenplay by shooting a film that is choked with compelling shot compositions and cinematography that is elegant yet dank and grim, like the basement of a funeral parlor. Stoker is not really a horror movie, but it is the scariest movie of the year. There are no ghosts or haunted houses. No vampires or zombies. Just a delightful cast of unsettling characters and an atmosphere creepy enough to spook the most hardened horror fan.
8. The Act of Killing
Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica” recalls the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by Italian and German forces during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is whimsical and beautiful, but it’s revealing a horrific truth about war and violence. Similarly, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is an unflinching look into the psyche of mass murderers and warlords, capturing humanity at its ugliest, but presenting it with beauty and grace. There are two stories being told in The Act of Killing. The first, and easiest to quantify, is the story of the communist genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s. The second, and much more elusive, is how those who carried out the genocide feel about their own legacy, which they are asked to re-create and film in whatever manner they see fit. From Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, 2013 saw a number of wonderful documentaries subvert the format’s traditional narrative form and challenge the notion of what a documentary can be. But none were more perverse, beautiful or haunting than The Act of Killing.
7. A Band Called Death
I really got into punk music as an adult, long past my angry teen years. I imagine what a badass sick-boy I would have been if I had discovered Rancid or Bad Religion in my teens. Instead, I discovered them in my twenties and now I stick it to the man by wearing vans and a hoodie to my desk job. ANARCHY! I suppose I did the punk music fandom thing backwards; which is probably why I connected so well to A Band Called Death (which technically premiered at the LA Film Festival in 2012 but didn’t have distribution or a release date until 2013). A Band Called Death is a peculiar rock documentary about a pioneering punk band who also did the punk music thing backwards, in that they got their big break more than thirty years after they split up. Death, the band and film’s namesake, consisted of Dannis, Bobby and David Hackney, three black brothers from Detroit who started making punk music in their bedroom in the early seventies, several years before The Clash, The Sex Pistols or even the phrase “punk music” made its way to the States. Despite dealing with one of the more remarkable stories in music history, A Band Called Death is able to elevate beyond its premise and be a movie that is just as much about loyalty, family and art as it is about three unlikely punk superstars. And if the Hackney Brothers can rock this hard thirty years after they disbanded, than I have no shame in day dreaming about shaving my head into a mohawk and skanking in my cubicle.
6. All is Lost
Thematically similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, All is Lost is more true in its depiction of humanity’s natural instinct to survive. J.C. Chandor’s sophomore effort is simple in concept: an older man, identified in the credits only as Our Man, is stranded somewhere in the Indian Ocean as his luxury sail boat is slowly falling apart. Robert Redford, the film’s sole actor, creates one of the most complex and mysterious characters of the year. If there is any presence that looms larger than Chandor’s directing or Redford’s acting it’s the music from Alex Ebert, frontman to the energetic folk-rock group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. The score, for which Ebert won a Golden Globe, is at once reflective and sprawling, allowing the film, which is limited in scope, to take on a greater meaning. Our Man is probably a lot of things. He’s probably wealthy. He’s probably a family man. He probably has sins he hasn’t yet atoned for. It doesn’t matter what the pieces of his life look like; what matters is that he’ll do anything not to lose them.
5. Frances Ha
I’m neither a dancer nor a woman. Nor a New Yorker or single. Superficially, I don’t see a lot of myself in the character of Frances, but after watching Frances Ha, from director and co-writer Noah Baumbach, it feels as if it was written for me. There’s a universality to Frances and her desire to find fulfillment and belonging in a world she no longer belongs to. Greta Gerwig, co-writer of the film, plays Frances, a twenty-something dancer, meandering through life in New York City. When she splits with her boyfriend, gets demoted in her dance company and has a falling out with her best friend she realizes her life no longer gels with the world she’s fallen into. Shot entirely in stark black and white, Frances Ha is a profound statement on loss, love and belonging. Gerwig is fascinating as Frances, and allows her to be flawed without ever condemning her. When the meaning of the title is revealed, it’s an epiphany, for both Frances and the viewer, that’s as simple as it is profound.
4. Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers, from writer/director Harmony Korine, is a film that just feels dangerous, like you’re getting away with something just by watching it. Ostensibly, it’s about four mid-western college girls who go to Tampa for spring break when they encounter a drug dealer-cum-rapper-cum-weirdo named Alien. Spring Breakers is an unsettling mixture of surrealism and staunch pragmatism. The result is something that’s bizarre, beautiful, grotesque and prescient (see Alien’s rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, played on a baby grand piano flanked by three girls in ski masks carrying automatic rifles). Spring Breakers has been described as a fever dream; but that implies that one’s brain is under duress and has surrendered entirely to its subconscious. Spring Breakers is more of a lucid dream. It’s a candy-colored world, controlled, in equal parts, by Korine’s conscious brain and by the insidious thoughts that rattle around in his subconscious like the last coin in a piggy bank.
3. Blue is the Warmest Color
Of all the films on my list, Abdellatif Kechcihe’s Blue is the Warmest Color is the one I can’t seem to shake. Adele Exarchopolous gives the best performance of the year as Adele, a suburban high-school girl who falls uncontrollably in love with Emma, played wonderfully by Lea Seydoux, a slightly older, struggling artist. The film, which clocks in just over three hours, spans several years, allowing Adele and Emma to evolve and adapt not only to each other, but to the culture that surrounds them. Much has been made of the sex scenes between Adele and Emma. But the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color is just like the sex in any relationship: it’s important, but it’s just one part of a greater whole. To dwell on these scenes is to miss the point. The film devotes just as much time to love, art, education, food and all of the things that make a relationship work. And the things that make it fall apart.
The first trailer I saw for Her was in a packed theater. There’s a moment in the trailer when the audience let out a collective laugh, as if to say “You can’t really think I’m going to take this seriously?”. That moment comes when Samantha—the sentient Operating System that Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) acquires and develops a relationship with—asks Theodore how he would touch her if the two were lying in bed together. In a vacuum and without context, it’s funny to think of someone having a sexual encounter with their smart phone. When I eventually saw the film, that moment comes and goes without a single snicker from the audience. Director Spike Jonze creates a universe that is so complete that the encounter between Samantha and Theodore is not only believable, it’s inevitable.
Her inhabits a future world that’s foreign and mesmerizing, but apocryphal and familiar. The cinematography is warm and sun-stained, mimicking the film’s tone and perspective on even the most devastating of human interactions. Joaquin Phoenix is subdued, yet still larger than life as Theodore Twombley. Scarlett Johansson, who never physically appears in the film, has never been better as Samantha. She embodies a character that has no physical form and is as present a force as Phoenix. Her is a bizarre film that is so fully realized, it would make less sense if Theodore Twombley couldn’t fall in love with his operating system.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Tony Soprano is an anti-hero. He’s an awful person. But by the end of HBO’s The Sopranos, I was still rooting for him. He’s terrible, but he lives in a world I can separate myself from. I can root for Tony Soprano because I’ll (probably) never be asked to whack my best friend. Llewyn Davis is also an anti-hero; but in their film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers do not afford you the luxury of separating yourself from Llewyn Davis.
Llewyn is a struggling musician in New York in the 1960s, embodied by Oscar Isaac, who gives the most nuanced performance of the year. Having achieved mild success as one half of a duo, Llewyn finds himself alone and vulnerable after his partner commits suicide. His dwindling number of friends and acquaintances include an elderly couple he takes for granted, a woman he impregnated who hates him and a string of stray cats he cares for until it becomes too inconvenient. The film examines how we deal, and fail to deal, with grief, love and ambition. The music in Inside Llewyn Davis, composed by T. Bone Burnett, is beautiful and subtle, it shows Llewyn at his most human and haunts him at every turn.
Llewyn Davis is an anti-hero. He may not look or act like Tony Soprano, but his morality is just as ambiguous. He’s selfish and ungrateful, talented and sensitive. Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that’s not content exploring the morality of its characters; the Coen Brothers are also challenging the morality of their audience. And I’m a little afraid to admit that, by the end of the film, I’m still rooting for Llewyn.